The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Bigger Than the Continental US: Here's What We Can Do About It


Researchers and activists are constantly working on learning more about the extent of the Pacific Garbage Patch (and others) and finding ways to clean up the damage. And we're constantly keeping you updated on what their efforts yield. Check out below for news on estimates about the size of the Pacific trash vortex.

What is the Pacific Garbage Patch?

Simply put, it's a swirling mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific ocean that is big enough to qualify as the planet's largest landfill. Roughly located in an area between 135° to 155°W and 35° to 42°N, much of the world's trash has accumulated into this part of the Pacific Ocean based on the movement of ocean currents.

A rose any other name applies to the Pacific Garbage Patch -- you'll also hear it called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the "Pacific Trash Gyre," the "Pacific Trash Vortex," and the "Oh My...What Have We Done!?" among other names.

How does all that plastic get to the ocean?

The simple answer:

Humans + Ocean Currents = Trash Vortex.

People create, consume, and carelessly toss plastics and the litter ends up in the water ways. As the plastic reaches the shoreline, currents carry it out into the ocean and a convergence of currents swirl the plastics into one general area.

trash gyre with currents image

Image via Wikimedia

No one is guiltless when it comes to the Pacific Garbage Patch - if you consume and discard goods, you are responsible for some portion of the plastic that is ending up in the ocean, even if you live hundreds of miles from the seaside. All rivers lead to the sea, as they say. Trash that ends up in a stream in the middle of the US can end up in the ocean and, with the help of ocean currents, find itself in the middle of a trash vortex.

Here's a great slideshow explaining how trash from the middle of the continent can end up in the middle of the ocean:

View Slideshow: Cartoonist Explains the Pacific Garbage Patch With Talking Sealife

What's the impact of marine litter on wildlife?

The plastics found in the ocean have a dire effect on marine life. Turtles confuse plastic bags for jellyfish and birds confuse bottle caps for food. They ingest them but can't digest them, so their stomachs fill with plastic and they starve to death, even though they continue trying to eat.

View Slideshow: An Ocean of Plastic...In Bird's Guts - Photos from Chris Jordan illustrate the scale of the problem of plastics when it comes to birds

Additionally, fish on the low end of the food chain consume tiny bits of plastic, and they're in turn eaten by larger fish which we catch and eat. So we're now quite literally eating the plastic we produce. Not an appetizing thought.

Charles Moore gave an excellent TED talk about the floating vortex of death:

How much plastic is in the Pacific Garbage Patch?

We have no idea. We have estimates on the size of the patch, at least in terms of surface area. Researchers peg the trash gyre to be as large as the continental United States, and according to, every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic and plastic constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world's oceans.. But exactly how many pieces of plastic is impossible to say, and researchers are still stunned at how much they find when they get out there to assess the damage we're doing to one of our most precious resources.

What's worse - the Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only trash vortex out there. There are five - yes FIVE - trash gyres. Located in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, the trash gyres represent what we're doing to our planet on a global scale.

5 gyres project image

Image via 5 Gyres Project

Everything from fish nets to bottle caps, from the tiny pellets of plastic that are in your exfoliating face soap to old toys are all ending up floating in the sea.

UPDATE: Stiv Wilson of the 5 Gyres Project has released a preliminary attempt at an estimate on how much trash is floating out there. According to Discovery News, he estimates that there are 315 billion pounds of plastic in the ocean right now.

The point of the calculations is this: cleaning up the plastics in the ocean ain't gonna happen. Well-intentioned programs designed to take the fight to the high seas, like Project Kaisei and the Environmental Cleanup Coalition, for example, are exercises in futility.

"I'm not trying to call them out," Wilson told Discovery News. "What I really fear is a barge full of plastic coming in under the Golden Gate bridge, the media taking pictures and people thinking 'oh good, we've solved that problem.'"

A real cleanup would be astronomically expensive, both in terms of dollars and equipment.

Can we clean it up?

Not really.

But that's not for lack of desire to try. Many research teams have sailed out to the middle of the trash vortex to try and determine the scale of a cleanup effort.

And basically, there's no practical way to do anything about it. At least not yet.

Some of the factors getting in the way of clean up include: the area of the trash vortex is HUGE; the plastic is in various states of break down and some pieces are too tiny to collect; the ocean is deep and the plastic is floating from the surface all the way down to the murky bottom; the amount of fuel it would take to get ships out there to capture the plastic would emit so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the pros of a clean up are greatly reduced by the cons; the types of plastics are mixed so recycling them into anything usable would be difficult if not impossible.

However, some ideas for what to do with the plastic include incinerating it for power generation. That could potentially offset the amount of energy spent on hauling it in from the middle of the ocean, but for now, it's still just a concept idea.

But basically, we've over-produced, over-consumed, and over-wasted ourselves into a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. Still, that doesn't stop some people from trying!

What can we do to stop it from getting worse?

Leah Lamb is one activist who has made a pledge to remove every piece of plastic she's responsible for from the Pacific Garbage Patch. She's a diver and each time she goes out on a dive, she tries to bring back as much plastic as she can find mucking up the waters where she swims.

It's a great idea and a great start, but there are loads of ways to help keep the garbage patch from growing that have nothing to do with heading out to sea.

The Ocean Conservancy gives a list of 10 tips for helping out:

  • Volunteer for a beach or river clean-up effort
  • Put trash in a secure, lidded receptacle - most marine debris starts out on land.
  • Properly recycle everything you can in your area.
  • When boating, bring your trash back to shore, and ask your marina to handle waste properly.
  • Less is more: Don't buy stuff you don't need, and choose items that use less packaging.
  • Inform and inspire your friends and co-workers to help stop marine debris at the source.
  • Bring your own containers for picnics instead of using disposables. Take your own reusable bags whenever you go shopping.
  • Write to companies or visit local businesses and encourage them to reuse, recycle, and generate less packaging.
  • Put cigarette butts in ashtrays, not on streets, sidewalks, or beaches.
  • Tell Congress it's time to stop trashing our ocean. Take action now and send an email to your representative!

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